There will have been 2½ years between the historic State visits of Queen Elizabeth’s to Ireland and President Michael D Higgins’s to Britain.
Politically, there has been an even wider span between the stances of Sinn Féin in relation to the queen’s visit in 2011 and President Higgins’s visit next April.
In 2011 Sinn Féin was involved in street protests against the visit. The party also instructed the then Sinn Féin mayor of Cashel to boycott the visit of the queen to the south Tipperary town. The mayor, Michael Browne, defied the order and became the first representative of Sinn Féin to shake hands with the queen. He was terminally ill at the time and died several months later.
Within a year, Sinn Féin had effected its reverse on its attitude to the British monarch. When the queen visited Northern Ireland in June 2012, Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was given permission by the party’s ruling body, the Ard Chomhairle, to shake hands with her. Sinn Féin argued that the context had changed in the preceding 12 months and that the 40-strong Ard Chomhairle had voted by a large majority to give the green light for the meeting.
Sinn Féin portrayed the queen's speech in Dublin, where she acknowledged past mistakes, as a "catalyst" for change. Party president Gerry Adams also used the word "catalyst" in the short statement he issued this weekend after the President's state visit was announced. This time the visit would be a catalyst for the Belfast Agreement to be implemented. But, unlike 2011, there was an unambiguous welcome for the visit.
Sinn Féin is in a process of transition. It is happening too slowly and laboriously for those who say the party must accept all the responsibilities that go with fully embracing a democratic process. But it is happening nonetheless.
In a significant speech over the weekend, Adams gave further indications of a shift in the party’s gestation. There was another call for a Border poll, which is a big republican demand under the new dispensations, as well as an interesting call for a realignment of Irish politics.
In this new landscape, there is Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on one side and all the forces of the broad left on the other. While others see Sinn Féin as interlopers in leftist politics, the party sees itself as the future left-of-centre powerhouse.